San Pedro de Atacama, a small town situated near the edge of the driest desert on earth, is hot and sunny. It is a welcome change from the cold of Bolivia’s altiplano. The border crossing is easily navigable, eased over with a Bs15 fee, undocumented by Bolivia’s embassy.
Once over in Chile, the differences are marked – the roads are smooth tarmac, the cars newer, better kept. The town itself lies on the border of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, and we pass trucks transporting cars, enroute to trade ports, no doubt.
We visit the Atacama desert, composed mainly of salt flats and sand. The desert is blocked from rain by the Andes and the Chilean coastal mountain ranges, with some areas having never received even a drop of rainfall. The desert is so arid and Mars-like that NASA frequently uses the Atacama as a test region for their personnel and equipment in Death Valley, so named due to the utter lack of life.
The Cordillera de Sal, or Salt ranges, are formations made from salt – chipping away at the sand encrusting the canyon walls, you find the salt crystals underneath. A quick taste test confirms it – the entire area is made from salt. This makes for some interesting formations as salt erodes in a different manner from rock.
The otherworldly landscapes of the Valley of the Moon make for a dramatic setting to watch the sunset. To one side, the Amphitheater, a large rock formation shaped by wind to resemble a large stadium, as well as the Grand Dune, form a panaromic vista. To the other, the severe peak of Mount Licancabur shed shades of gold, orange, scarlet, and lilac as the sun sets.